Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Gregory of Tours

Chilperic I speaking to Bishop Gregory
Georgius Florentius (539-593) was born into a distinguished Gallo-Roman family in Arverni in southern France. His father died when he was young, and Georgius went to live with his uncle, Bishop Gal, who educated him as a cleric. After recovering from a serious illness, he decided to join the church, and he changed his name to Gregory in honor of his mother's great-grandfather, the Bishop of Langres.

In 573, he was appointed Bishop of Tours by Sigebert I, King of Austrasia and Auvergne. He traveled to Rome to have his appointment confirmed, where the 6th century Latin poet Fortunatus wrote a poem to commemorate him. A bishop had many civic as well as ecclesiastical duties, and Gregory justified the faith in him by tending to his flock and challenging the shortcomings of politicians. The Frankish dynasties at the time were not living up to the standards of leadership established by King Clovis (466-511), and their rule often descended into petty disputes and civil war. When Sigebert fought a war with Chilperic I (539-584; he was a son of Clothar I and Aregund), Gregory tried to make them see the damage they were doing to the common folk, proclaiming "This has been more hurtful to the Church than the persecution of Diocletian."*

As brave as he was in trying to ameliorate the crude Frankish culture with an infusion of more sophisticated Roman culture and Christian sensibility, he was also diligent in recording the history of his country. He wrote ten books of history (Historia Francorum, History of the Franks), seven on miracles, one on the lives of the early church fathers; he also wrote on liturgy and scripture.

His work can be called propagandist—or perhaps simply written unsurprisingly with his own personal filters—since Christian tribes and countries always come out looking better than pagans in his history. He also comes out strongly against Arianism and Jews. Despite his moralizing—maybe because of it—his anecdotes are an excellent view into the culture and customs of the time. His history, along with two other works called the "Chronicle of Fredegar" and the "Book of the History of the Franks," provide an almost unbroken history of Gaul for 300 years after the Fall of Rome. He is also fairly objective at times: his writing on miracles questions the truth of some of them.

He is also our best source of history for the Frankish dynasty called the Merovingians while it was still strong and founding what would eventually become the nation of France. He would have been saddened a hundred years later to find a line of kings so different from Clovis and Chilperic that they would be called the "do-nothing kings." But that's a tale for another day ... like tomorrow.

*Diocletian (245-313) was the emperor responsible for the final and worst wave of Christian persecution in the Roman empire.

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